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125 years of Isandlwana
by Neil Aspinshaw

On the 22nd Jan 2004 7.30am, myself, Mark Jones and Sam Glamis climbed the last incline that leads to the top Isandlwana. Thick heads through last night's Gin marathon and the thin air make a heady concoction. Even at this height we were surprised by a small rodent scurrying across our path. At the summit we are staggered at the view before us. The mist caused by last nights rain was slowly dissipating, causing ghostlike wisps to drift and spiral across the grass of Isandlwana in morning breeze, twisting and turning before gradually disappearing. Peering down the fugitives trail, blesbok could be seen scurrying amongst the Aloes’. Below our grandstand position a hawk drifts upon the thermals across the sides of isandlwana as it looks for its breakfast.As it rises it drifts away as it sees’ three odd looking humans in this strange mysterious place.

This is my second visit to South Africa, we had not explored the battlefields on foot much the first time, but this was something special. Isandlwana, oh! how much had I wanted to come here, and now, here from our vantage point we ponder the view of one of the most evocative battlefields in British military history. Time for a few pictures then quiet contemplation, I imagine the scene below me as it would be in 1879, lazy plumes of smoke rise from cooking fires, the whole scene is a sea of white canvas, the sides of the bell tents rolled up to dry the condensation. Men go about there daily duties, those who have none lie relaxing in the early sunlight, they had been rudely awakened by the second Battallion as they marched off into the half light of early dawn. The activity of the camp belies the calmness of the morning, just another day on this imperial crusade, nothing out of the ordinary.

Not much is said as we slowly picked our way down the western face of Isandlwana, The grave of Shepstone, now hidden on the steep slope that falls away from the crag. This is the first reminder of what happened here. Erosion has moved huge piles of shale to form a weird moonscape as we make our way around the incline, the crunch of the earth under our boots is the only sound. Poking out of the shale is a chalk white piece of bone, we take the time to bury it with our sticks, no clue… human or animal, just a relic of mortality that deserves respect. You cannot help but look down here, the volcanic shapes deceive the eye, you hope for a button, a cartridge case, a screw from an ammunition box.

By the time we have explored a steady trickle of 4 x 4’s are arriving, the occupants clambering out, they all react the same, to stop and stare, slowly turning around taking in the dramatic backdrop. For many it is the realisation of a dream to come here, like me… the first time, not speaking, barely able to keep my emotion bottled up. Many marvel at the cairns and memorials that surround them, Some stoop down to pick up a shard of shale.

Now picture the scene, when we took this photograph it was 12.45 pm on Jan 22nd 2004, we stood atop of Malhabamkhosi (Blacks Koppie), if only you could wind time back, it’s 12.45pm on Wed 22nd January 1879, groups of men are making the last stands on this spot, up on the saddle Younghusband is shouting orders, trying to keep his company together. To the left of this image Anstey's company is falling back over the Nek, being joined by a trickle of men who see this as their last chance to escape. The dust is just starting to settle... the guns had just thundered past the groups of men desperately trying to clear an opening. Now hundreds of Zulus are racing into the void created by the guns, cutting the defences in half.
A horseman can be seen galloping toward Anstey. It’s Teignmouth Melvill, carrying the colour. Is he leaving the field or is he looking for a rally point?. Anstey’s group is fighting a classic rear guard, the men are firing, withdrawing, firing, withdrawing, a thrown assegai catches one of the men in the thigh and he falls. One member of his section stoops to drag the man by his valise, the man implores him to leave him. Propping himself up against a boulder he calmly raises his Martini Henry, turning to wave to his comrades, he smiles, aims and fires. Today his pitiful bones can now be seen poking through the gaps in a small cairn. Meanwhile in the dust and confusion Melvill looses sight of Anstey, when he does again catch sight he can see he is surrounded but his men are fighting like demons. Nothing he can do now, but to try and save some kind of honour.

Its now 22nd Jan 2004, at 13.35pm, the clouds are hanging like blanket over the fated field, a bugler is standing on the 24th memorial, suddenly the echo of voices from excited visitors dies away as a the bugler lifts the instrument to his mouth, a small Zulu child who is running playing with a stick and an old bicycle wheel lets it clatter to the ground, he too stops, what these people have in abundance is respect.

The last post echoes out across the lonely expanse that is Isandlwana. I am standing with Jonesy and Dave Woolford, he is RSM to 5 Field squadron Royal Engineers, 6ft 3 tall and built like a brick outhouse! We all have tears tricking down our faces.

That evening at Fugitives Drift Lodge we toast present company,and, the warriors who wore red or leopard skin of 1879. The original silver chalice given to William Eccles Mostyn on joining the 1st 24th is raised. The toast is the 24th. Our minds drift away to another time, Was it really a swirl of mist we saw that morning?, or the spirit of a warrior, black or white still looking for the light.